Church school theft prompts safety review

| May 9, 2010

MONROE — An apparent break-in at a parochial school here has raised a red flag regarding security procedures for religious and private schools.

On April 30, a man was caught rifling through the pocketbook of a first-grade teacher at St. Mary School while she was on lunch break, Monroe police said. When another teacher confronted the man, he pushed past her and fled through a back door into a waiting car.

Police said the school has good security, with two check-in points at the main entrance and doors that lock from the inside. They described the theft as a fluke. But police met with administrators Tuesday to go over safety procedures after it was discovered the man may have entered through a door that was not pulled shut.

"It was definitely a wake-up call for them," said Capt. John Cortesi, patrol commander for Monroe police.

"They are trying to make drastic changes to whatever they can do to change this," Cortesi said.

He said administrators were confused and upset, beyond the security breach.

"They're basically looking to educate people about how important it is to make sure the doors are pulled tight, and they are looking into security cameras," said Cortesi.

Andrew Walton, spokesman for the Camden Diocese, said all schools in the diocese have security arrangements in place that are monitored on a regular basis.

"They've informed parents, they're looking into the security measures presently in place and they'll do whatever's necessary to supplement the measures already in place to make sure the school is as secure as it could be," Walton said of St. Mary.

Parent Erica Vincenti, of Winslow, said she was a little upset that notification came in the form of a private e-mail as opposed to the "Gloucester Alert" system.

"In that situation, we should've been notified," Vincenti said. "We're lucky he didn't try to grab a kid or anything."

Police have described the thiefas a black male, about 5 feet 9 inches tall with a heavy build, wearing dark gray pants and a black shirt and carrying a black-and-gray camouflage-patterned backpack that appeared to be full.

When the man exited the building, he ran past a group of seventh-graders who were holding class outside and ran up the street to a small white vehicle parked in front of the municipal building, police said.

Vincenti said the incident was unfortunate because she believes the school does a good job on security matters, such as escorting children in certain grades to the bathroom instead of just handing out passes.

"This is one of the reasons I send my daughter to a private school instead, to prevent her from seeing the abundance of that in the world," Vincenti said.

At the Friends School in Mullica Hill, doors are locked and there are escorts from building to building, said Paula Cera, the school's office manager.

It's a long way from earlier days, when students were free to roam about campus, she said.

"We were typically a very open campus and it was very hard to put the door system in," Cera said. "We felt closed off."

Cindy Jaconia of Monroe, who has a fifth-grader and a preschooler at St. Mary, said the school's security has always been excellent. Even when her daughter was a preschooler, it was difficult to get into the school, she added.

Vincenti said she was at the school April 30 to drop off pretzels for her daughter's birthday and even she was not allowed into the classroom.

But Vincenti and Jaconia both said they occasionally volunteered as lunchroom parents to watch over students who go outside for recess, and both said the door is sometimes left open.

Vincenti said a closed door could be a fire hazard.

"It's really a Catch-22," she acknowledged.

At Friends School, students are instructed not to let in anyone, "even if it's your best friend's mom," Cera said.

"We also had to retrain our parents, say "Don't depend on these kids and don't put them in that position,' " she said.

Cortesi said private schools do not fall under state regulations for school security, whereas public schools have certain procedures in place, including police officers on campus and running drills for incidents such as an active shooter situation.

Cortesi said Monroe police and St. Mary officials discussed lockdown procedures used in public schools. Some of them are already in place at the school, but police also recommended security cameras.

"Of course, the taxpayer dollar is a little bigger than a private dollar," Cortesi said. "Public schools can do more, such as getting a sophisticated camera system, than a private school could."

Walton said St. Mary is looking to add a security camera system but there are no plans for such a system in other schools.

All of the schools in the Diocese of Camden system have strong security, Walton said, and the schools run regular security checks against those measures. St. Mary just had its security checked in March, he said.

Joe Bozzelli of Monroe, the father of a pre-schooler, said something like this could happen at any school anywhere.

"I can't imagine what kind of guy would steal from a church," Bozzelli said.

"You gotta be desperate."

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Category: Church Security

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